Homeless Alaskans help run Catholic shelter in effort to leave it

Last October, DeVika Rhodes boarded a plane in Philadelphia with only a few dollars in her pocket, hoping for a fresh start in Alaska.

The 42-year-old mom had battled the recession in Philadelphia — taking every available job, including temporary work in construction. She had never slept in a homeless shelter or seen a soup kitchen but she arrived in Anchorage without a home or money for a hotel.

“One of the people I was on the plane with had been on all three of my flights from Philly. He told me, ‘There’s a shelter in Anchorage.’”

Four months later, she is grateful for the lifeline that the Catholic Social Services-run Brother Francis Shelter provided through a volunteer job at the downtown facility. And she is continuing to seek full-time work in Anchorage.

No idle hands

Rhodes fills one of 49 homeless volunteer positions which keep Anchorage’s largest homeless shelter running smoothly. Volunteers answer phones, greet newcomers, monitor the premises, work in the kitchen, sort blankets and clothing donations and keep the place clean and inviting.

Darryl Payne, 42, is another homeless Alaskan taking advantage of the leg-up offered by Brother Francis Shelter’s In-House program as a kitchen supervisor. Payne has lived in Alaska most of his life but arrived at the shelter due to poor decisions and problems that included a divorce and trouble with the law.

After leaving the Wildwood Correctional Facility in Soldotna more than three years ago, Payne was determined to turn his life around. Through volunteering at Brother Francis, he now sees a brighter future.

“Brother Francis Shelter has been a good part of my change,” Payne explained. “If Brother Francis wasn’t here for me, I wouldn’t have been able to become stable.”

Dewayne Harris, program director at Brother Francis Shelter, said the volunteer program has two goals: to prepare residents for job readiness by giving them experience in the real-life responsibilities of a job, and to provide the shelter with help in operating the facility.

For example, those calling the shelter during the day may find the crisp, professional voice of Rhodes answering at the front desk.

The work comes with strict policies and procedures, which must be followed if a guest wishes to keep working. These include obeying curfew requirements and avoiding drugs and alcohol as well as performing the job efficiently.

Additionally, volunteers are required to be in case management — actively looking for full-time employment and expected to find a job within 60 days. The shelter permits schedules to be flexible enough to allow for job interviews.

“I’ll move mountains with their position here to keep them involved in their job hunt,” Harris said.

Volunteers are also required to save 70 percent of any income they receive — from salaries, disability checks or Permanent Fund Dividends.

But the in-house jobs also come with coveted privileges, including: a reserved bed, being allowed to remain in the building during the day, a personal storage locker and the right to extend the normal 30-day stay at the shelter to up to four months.

Reaping the rewards

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Shelter manager Jim Stout has a paid position and works directly under program director Harris.

Stout is a Brother Francis Shelter success story. The one-time homeless Alaskan has worked his way up through the system, has his own home and oversees a staff of 55 at the shelter.

There’s a lot of competition for the 49 in-house positions, Stout said, and not everybody can make it.

“If they can’t get along with other people, they can’t hold the job,” he said. “Curfew is a challenge for many, and also alcohol.”

As a volunteer, Payne has a small bedroom in the staff quarters, which accommodates up to 10 people. He said some people “choose to use the shelter as a flophouse for a hangover” and addiction and mental health problems plague many guests.

But if you’re motivated, “this is an awesome place for people wanting to help themselves.”

Payne, like most people, never envisioned himself needing a shelter and for him, it was a last resort after burning too many bridges.

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“I came here because it was cold. I had nowhere else to go. I had a sweat suit on, forty dollars in my pocket, and I was isolated from my family. All I wanted was a bed for the night.”

He now sees his decision to come to the shelter as a pivotal one for his personal growth.

Harris said approximately 80 percent of shelter guests are men, and 20 percent female. Brother Francis is an adult shelter only, and about 35 percent of the guests already have full-time jobs.

“Who knows why they walk through our doors?” Harris said. It might be as simple as having lost the roommate who made an apartment affordable. It could be the loss of seasonal work.

On a recent February night, 250 men and women — ten over official capacity — filled the facility. On many cold winter nights, more than 300 people clamor for a spot on the floor, and the overflow is directed to nearby Beans’ Café, a soup kitchen, where shelter staff supervise for the night.

Rhodes remembers vividly her first night at the shelter.

“It was a shock to my heart,” she recalls. Having grown up in King of Prussia near Philadelphia, attended Catholic school through sixth grade, and worked most of her life, she never dreamed she’d find herself jobless and in a shelter.

Now, she has her resume out all over town, and hopes to bring her daughter, who receives her First Communion this spring, up to Anchorage as soon as she finds work.

“If you show the people here at Brother Francis you’re sincere and want to get on your feet, they’ll go to bat for you,” she said.

Printed with permission from CatholicAnchor.org, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.

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